If you've ever been on my blog or Twitter before you will have heard me shout about a brilliantly quirky and interesting book called The Last Bus to Coffeeville, which was a treasure I had the joy to review with my Woman's World hat on back in 2014. And so I was thrilled when No Exit Press reached out to me asking whether I'd like to be a part of the blog tour for the author's latest release: The Last of the Bowmans. The answer was of course, 'hell yes'. While I haven't read the book just yet to be able to publish a review (I will do so in the next few weeks) I'm excited to be sharing with you a guest post from J. Paul Henderson on the origins of the story and characters in his new novel.
Guest post by J. Paul HendersonCompared to the writing of Last Bus to Coffeeville, the research for The Last of the Bowmans was a lot more straightforward. The backdrop for the novel was on my doorstep – a declining industrial city, in many ways as dysfunctional as the Bowmans themselves – and the only subjects I had to research in any depth were wall-ties and feet: you think you know them, but you probably don’t. So, no flights and no road journeys: just a couple of day trips to the east coast of Yorkshire and one into the South Pennines. (I purposely don’t name the city and towns that appear in the book. I wanted the novel to be defined by its story and not its locations.)
The starting point for the book is the death of Lyle Bowman, an eighty-three year old man who is knocked down and killed by a bus while out shopping for a Cadbury’s Double Decker – a chocolate bar I was enamoured with at the time of writing, and whose price varied considerably from store to store. He is survived by two sons, Greg and Billy, and a younger brother, Frank. These four people are the eponymous ‘Last of the Bowmans’ and the novel’s key characters.
Although I dropped several aspects of my father’s life into the story, Lyle Bowman is not my father. His younger brother, Frank, however, was the starting point for Uncle Frank. He, too, was a small man, hard of hearing and interested in the Wild West; and he, too, holidayed in Llandudno for twenty-seven years running. He wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination, however, the friendless libertarian who appears in the book, and I doubt my uncle would have enjoyed the company of his cantankerous namesake – or his music.
The characters of Greg and Billy are pure invention, even though the cause of their estrangement – falling out over the rights and wrongs of painting plastic drainpipes – is based on an argument I once had with a friend (I was of the opinion that you had to paint them). I wanted the brothers to be diametric opposites: one the Steady Eddie of the family and the other the Black Sheep; and for their roles to switch over the telling of the story. Billy is the good son, the more reliable but less gifted of the two brothers, destined to drive a mid-range car his whole life; while Greg, the effortlessly talented but naturally self-centred and irresponsible one, is the man no father would want his daughter to marry.
Once the characters of Greg and Billy were in place, I needed to formulate a more solid, but hidden, reason for their estrangement (other than their disagreement over drainpipes), and one that could double, however indirectly, as the reason for Billy going off the rails. Originally, I’d intended for Billy’s wife, Jean, to have been a chiropodist, and for Billy to have fallen into the arms of another woman simply to avoid her ‘contaminated’ touch, but then, when I started researching feet, I stumbled on podophobia and the rest, as they say, is history.
The other characters in the book fell into place during the writing of the funeral scene. I’d grown up knowing people like the Turtons, the Collards, Syd Butterfield and Betty Halliwell, and it was simply a matter of changing their natures (sometimes grotesquely, as in the case of Doris and Barry Turton), while keeping their speech patterns and mannerisms intact. None of them is based on an actual person, though I did once know a lady whose family fortunes were based on tripe, and who liked the Alan Titchmarsh Show simply because the host came from Ilkley. (There are probably better reasons for judging a person’s worth than their place of birth.)
The other main character in the book is the Bowman house itself – and this is my parents’ house. It was the first and only house they lived in, and the house they died in. It was the house I grew up in, occasionally returned to, and regularly visited. And it was here – while decorating the rooms after my father’s death, and arranging for a large horizontal crack in the back wall to be filled – that some of the story lines for the novel came to mind: the possibility, for instance, of there being a second chance to have the conversations we should have had when the person was alive, and the likelihood (distinct unlikelihood, in my father’s case) of unearthing a disturbing secret while settling the family estate.
The working title for the book was The Crack, but by the time I’d finished writing it, it was clear that the title should be The Last of the Bowmans. But, if one more person tells me that the plural of Bowman is bowmen...
Thank you so much for sharing this great insight into the origins of the story and characters in your latest book with us, Paul!
The Last of the Bowmans is out now and you can get your copy from Foyles or your own preferred retailer.
Check out the other stops on this blog tour: